Boundaries Are Bullshit: Why Setting Boundaries Won’t Improve Your Relationship

When I first started down the lovely journey of healing from getting my heart ripped out and stomped on, I read/listened to/watched everything I could get my hands on regarding cheating, betrayal trauma, affair recovery, sex addiction, ALL THE THINGS! I was desperately trying to figure out how to stop losing my fucking mind and start putting the pieces of my shattered soul back together.

You know what I found? A bunch of crap about boundaries. Stuff like, “Set better boundaries if you want to be in a healthy relationship” and “Identify your boundaries if you don’t want to feel like garbage every day.” Even the CSATs I saw were telling me this stuff. But here’s the thing. It’s a bunch of bullshit.

I initially thought that I must not know what good boundaries are. So I made lists and I did worksheets and I went to support groups and I talked with my therapists, trying to identify what good boundaries are.

I eventually realized that I already had mostly good boundaries. “We don’t fucking cheat on each other” is a pretty good boundary. The problem was that my boundaries weren’t being respected. And when you find yourself in a partnership where your boundaries aren’t respected, you often realize that this is also true in most (maybe even all) of the relationships in your life.

Maybe you grew up in a home where your boundaries weren’t respected (remember being forced to hug your creepy grandpa/uncle/family friend?), so you never learned good boundaries. Maybe your friends don’t respect your boundaries (breaking commitments, insisting on getting things their way, criticizing you, etc.). Maybe your boss or coworkers are constantly stomping on your boundaries (requiring you to work late or do stuff that’s not your job). The point is that you can easily find yourself surrounded by people who don’t respect your boundaries.

So what happens when you start enforcing boundaries like all these experts tell you to do? These people, particularly your partner, will get frustrated and push back. They’ve been stomping all over your boundaries for years and they feel entitled to continue doing so. The experts will tell you to be firm with them, explain how you want to be treated, what your boundaries are, what the consequences for violating those boundaries are, then enforce the shit out of them. They’re basically telling you to piss off everyone you know–your entire support network.

Or they’ll tell you that if someone’s actions hurt you, it’s your fault because you’re allowing them to hurt you. Grow a thicker skin, they say. Stay calm, they say. Communicate clearly, enforce your boundaries, and don’t get too upset when the asshole keeps lying, withholding, rejecting, gaslighting, blaming, and minimizing. Just ignore the abuse by surrounding yourself with a magical bubble of boundaries.

Again I call bullshit! Studies on attachment show that those closest to us affect our biology whether we like it or not. And there is not a single boundary you can set that will stop someone from abusing you if they really want to do it (that’s where the police/jail come in).

It’s not like these experts are sitting around Dr. Evil style, laughing about how they’re destroying your life. But somehow they think that by enforcing boundaries, you’ll magically ditch all these jerks and be left with a wonderful group of boundary-respecting saints supporting you. What you’ll actually be left with is either a bunch of people who are pissed off at you for growing a spine. Or nothing and no one. Awesome, right?

Detaching With Love Is Bullshit

So what happens when your partner (or whoever) just keeps right on ignoring your boundaries? Over and over and over… I was told, “You may ultimately have to detach with love.” I guess the only answer was to get a divorce/start cutting people out of my life?

But hold up. What if that’s not an option right now? Some women have no income of their own, some live in a culture where divorce is not acceptable, some don’t want to be left completely and utterly alone (a prospect that would leave any human upset). Whatever reasons there might be, “detaching with love” just isn’t an option for some people.

Listen, when an animal is backed into a corner, it will do anything in order to protect itself. Being in an abusive relationship (and let’s face it, cheating is pretty much always emotional abuse) is like being that trapped animal. You will do anything you can to reestablish safety and control in order to reduce the risk of harm to yourself.

No sane person would suggest to that animal that it would feel better if it simply chose to let all the arrows bounce off it’s magically thickened skin. Or that it should piss off it’s entire pack and go out into the harsh world all alone.

You Can’t Control Anyone But Yourself (Duh)

The one useful thing I learned during all this trial and error is that my boundaries are about my behavior and no one else’s. For example, “If you continue to cheat on me, I will divorce you and cut off your balls” is a boundary (except for the mutilation part). “You have to go to therapy every day for the rest of your life” is not a boundary. It’s a demand. So, boundaries are all about what I will do, not what anyone else will/should/must/needs to do.

But as I said before, divorce is not always a possibility. So the better way to go about this is to figure out what exactly you want and how exactly you will get it. You will not get it by trying to control someone else’s behavior. You will only get what you want by living in a way that aligns with your values and goals.

You can totally still love your partner and be supportive of the work they’re doing. But if, for example, one of your key values is honesty and your partner is lying his ass off, you have to prioritize your value over his bullshit.

Values Over Boundaries

Okay, so let’s back up a second and look at what values really are. They are the standards you want to live by. The ideas about what is most important to you. These concepts are what cause you to make the choices you make and take the actions you take. If honesty is one of your values, your choices and actions will reflect that.

Okay okay okay. So, honesty is cool. But what are your other values? You probably have quite a few of them. Here are some examples:

  • freedom
  • security
  • independence
  • loyalty
  • creativity
  • community
  • dependability
  • peace and quiet
  • empathy
  • fairness
  • efficiency
  • order

To make our values more actionable, let’s turn them into verbs. So, the value of fairness might become “treating others fairly” or “being treated fairly.” Here are some examples of value verbs:

  • being loved
  • taking care of others
  • having good friends
  • being popular
  • gaining others’ approval
  • being appreciated
  • being independent
  • making money
  • having fulfilling work
  • being a good parent
  • having fun
  • being healthy
  • fighting injustice
  • living ethically

You can find a whole lot more examples on SMART Recovery’s Values and Goals Clarification page. So go through that and make a list of all the value verbs that resonate with you. Add any additional ones you can think of. Then circle your top three or four. These are your guiding stars. They will act as a magnet, pulling you toward a life that’s meaningful and enjoyable and pushing you away from all the monstrously ignorant, coco-bananas bullshit (Hmmm… have I used the word bullshit too many times? No, never.) in this world.

But wait, there’s more! You can take these value verbs and turn them into goals, which means translating them into practical ways of getting what you want. Magic!

Here’s how it works. Take a sheet of paper and divide it into three columns. In the left column, you’re going to write out your value verbs. In the middle column, you’ll write out related goals, or what you want to have happen. And in the right column, you’ll write out the behavior that will get you to that goal, or what you’re going to do about it.

Let’s say one of my values is having a good relationship with my partner. Here’s what my sheet might look like:

Obviously I can do all those things in the third column and he can still be a huge douche canoe. But he’ll slowly lose ground. For example, if I act like a calm, mature adult every time we start to argue and take a timeout whenever things start to get out of hand, he won’t be able to display his full range of crazy-making behavior (Like some kind of psychotic peacock. Look at the majesty of my blame-shifting! It is truly a sight to behold!).

Eventually, he’ll start to realize what a douche canoe he’s being because I won’t be reacting to his crazy-making crap, so he won’t be able to react to my reactions, and it all just kind of loses steam at that point.

So why is this better than boundaries? (Now I totally want to create a band with other betrayed partners called Better Than Boundaries where we all behave like total badasses a la Patti Smith while playing colossal ballads about heartbreak, self-examination, and the grand reckoning we will ultimately unleash upon the world.)

Values and goals are all about defining what you want to do for yourself. Boundaries are all about defining what you don’t want other people to do to you, what you want to keep out, and all the painful shit that you never want to experience again. Would you rather focus on the things that fill you with fear, rage, disgust, etc. or the things that make your life feel fulfilled?

A dog with good values

If you’d like to schedule a session with me to talk more about values, joining my new band, or anything else, head over to my contact page. I get it.